Photographing Man’s Best Friend – by Debbie Shook

December 13th, 2010
Close up of dog's face

Debbie Shook can best be described as an animal lover. Dedicating her time to photographing animals through her SqueakDog Pet Photography business is only the beginning, she also donates a percentage of each photo shoot to a non-profit and works with the animal rescue organization LUV A DOG to find animals a loving home. Fortunately, she set aside some time for us too and here is what she had to say:

Photographing Man’s Best Friend

Sometimes life throws you a curve ball. Even though you weren’t prepared to make a change, sometimes the change is for the better. And that’s how my story begins. After 13 years in a corporate job, traveling nationally and internationally, my Public Relations position was eliminated after the department was dissolved.  Initially, I was crushed. But then I thought about how I rarely saw my husband, my family, and my friends, and how I really wanted to do something in this world that had great meaning to me. After a summer of reflection, I decided to combine my passion for photography with my love for animals.  A professional pet photographer was born!

Sadly, most of us outlive our cats and dogs. It’s just a fact of life. Our pets give us so much unconditional love that I don’t think they could maintain that level of loyalty for 80 years! This is one of the main reasons I felt so compelled to become a pet photographer. I wanted to be able to give an incredible gift to pet lovers who truly feel as though their dogs and cats are part of the family.  As in our human lives, we never know what is in store for us tomorrow. I’ve had several calls from pet owners who have learned their dog or cat has a terminal disease or tumor. I hate these calls, yet I know that I can help ease the pain by taking photographs that the owners can treasure well after their pets are gone.

Once I decided my path, I spent many hours honing my craft through workshops and photography classes.  I wanted to learn as much as I could about the photography industry. Attending the annual WPPI (Wedding & Portrait Photographers International) convention was an incredible way to learn; I absorbed the knowledge like a sponge. That’s also where I met the great folks from Zenfolio! Additionally, I met 3 other incredible pet photographers at a workshop who have become wonderful friends, mentors, and sounding boards.

I decided that I wanted to capture pets in their natural environment whenever possible. That’s the charm of pets- each one has a unique personality that truly shows through when they’re in the comfort of their home or favorite park. Of course, some well trained pets can be photographed anywhere, but I’ll be the first to tell you that many get that “deer in the headlights” look when you plop them in a studio! With the brutal Chicago and Indiana winters, I’ve certainly considered having a small studio for those dogs and cats that would do well in a controlled environment.  But for now…have camera…will travel.

Being a pet photographer isn’t always as glamorous as it may sound (assuming you were thinking it was glamorous)! I’m often shooting lying on the ground in mud and who knows what else. I’ve been “nipped”, I’ve had dog poo flung on my shorts, shirt, and camera bag, and I’ve had my hair nibbled by a dog. It can also be a very physical job trying to get the perfect running shot while chasing a dog or contorting my body like a gymnast to get the shot of that cat who would really rather I leave him alone.  Dodging a charging horse is a situation I never hope to be in again either!  I sometimes dream about what it would be like to photograph a beautiful bride at some Caribbean resort where everyone is on his or her best behavior! But…there’s just something about the innocence and spontaneity of our cherished pets that keep me coming back.

One of the most AMAZING aspects of my job is that I have the opportunity to give back. I work with an incredible rescue organization in Indianapolis, IN, called LUV A DOG. The organization is run by a retired schoolteacher named Christina who has single handedly found homes for over 800 dogs!  She tirelessly works with her volunteers and foster parents to house the dogs until the right “forever home” can be matched. My contribution is to photograph the dogs available for adoption with the hopes that a better photo will catch the eye of a potential adoptive parent. I love meeting these dogs, capturing their personalities via my camera, and then hearing the great news that they’ve been adopted.  Rewarding? You bet!!!

So, my journey continues. I feel incredibly fortunate to be doing something I love for a living. The people and pets that I’ve met through my work continue to inspire me and make me realize on a daily basis that this is what I am meant to be doing.

Debbie Shook